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Britain’s First “Feminist:” Mary Wollstonecraft

George Eliot

To some, she may only be vaguely remembered as the mother of Mary Shelley, but in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century she was considered somewhat of a radical feminist. This was in part due to her gender-shattering essay, Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There are some critics who claim that she may have been the first woman in Britain, since Boadicea to proclaim the equality for women. She stated: “The foundation of morality in all human beings, male or female, is their common possession of the faculty of reason, Wollstonecraft argued, and women must claim their equality by accepting its unemotional dictates. Excessive concern for romantic love and physical desirability, she believed, are not the natural conditions of female existence but rather the socially-imposed means by which male domination enslaves them” (Kemmerling 2).

“Published in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the first great feminist treatise. Wollstonecraft preached that intellect will always govern and sought “to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonimous [sic] with epithets of weakness” (Anon 1).

One has to remember that the 1700s were a somewhat radical period, socially and politically, in Britain. Certainly the loss of the American colonies preyed heavily on the economic times, but, equally important was the status of women, considered as not merely the weaker sex, physically, but also not sufficiently developed intellectually to do more than bear children and run a household. The idea of a woman gaining equality with men was almost laughable. For her views as the first so-called “feminist” Ms. Wollstonecroft was considered a “radical.” She and some of her friends who felt the same way about the submissive role of women saw hope both in the American and French Revolutions, including, of course, the various documents about the Rights of Man. She even traveled to France to see the effects and results of their revolution on the status of women. Her main thesis was not merely the outrageous (to her) notion that somehow nature made Man and Woman unequal, but she was determined to do something about a proper education for English women. She herself had to take what was offered to women of higher than “common” heritage. This, in her case, meant serving as a governess to aristocracy.

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What, in her own formative years, brought her to become so active in trying to free women from the chokehold of the male-dominated society? Wollstonecraft’s early life exercised an important influence on the books she would write and predisposed her to find the radical politics of the 1780s and 1790s appealing. From her family experience as the second of seven children born to an abusive father, she learned first-hand the limits of her gendered social position.” (Anon. 2).

However, she was not- like some later feminists, so arrogant in her belief that Motherhood and maintaining a good marriage no longer mattered. To Wollstonecroft, this was still the main role of women. But, it was not to be the ONLY role. She fought against the ages-old principle that boys and girls were to be educated separately. It is interesting to note, however, that her own relationships wiuth men was, at least for that time, highly unconventional. She had an affair with an America, Gilbert Imlay, and gave birth to an illegitimate daughter. She had actually wanted to marry Imlay, but id didn’t happen. Instead, she ended up marrying William Godwin. This was, to say the least, a most unconventional marriage. She was already pregnant, but she and Godwin led totally separate lives. It may have been among the firsts of the “two career” marriage arrangements that, in the 21st century are hardly uncommon. She died in childbirth, but the daughter, who became famous later as Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, survived. In a way, her life and affairs seemed to be a sort of “do as I say, not as I do” way of living.

Many critics and writers to have investigated the life and works of Wollstonecroft consider her as part of the Enlightenment. One can write volumes about the philosophers and theologians who created new rational thinking in the 128th Century, but perhaps what may well have influenced Wollstonecraft the most is the idea that society is really formulated by a social contract- a bond or agreement between the individual and society as a whole. It seems quite possible that, given this concept, Wollstonecraft felt that women were excluded from this contractual foundation for life. They were excluded, she determined from her own life, by lack of a proper education, by lack of opportunity for meaningful employment, and for being at the mercy of abusive relationships both in and outside of marriage. She seemed unable to reconcile a woman’s lot with either the seemingly happy resolve of Jane Eyre or the miseries of WutheringHeights Catherine. If there is a literary ancestor to the type of woman Wollstonecraft would probably consider suitable it would he Katherine of Taming of the Shrew (until, at the end, she submits to Petrucchio).

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What sets her apart from other women, who were creating literary works in Britain in the time, is that her purpose in writing was to stir up emotions, especially among the women of her country. She did not write or “preach” to be entertaining, as the Brontes and Jane Austen and George Eliot were. Many who were comfortable with the historic male-dominated social strata of Britain considered her (if they bothered to think about her at all) as a “free spirit.” What was “radical” in the minds of those who supported the social status quo was that she wanted equality for women, and therefore equality in the day-to-day activities of the family. “Mary Wollstonecraft became one of the major philosophical sources from the Enlightenment era to shape the emergent modern social imaginary of the egalitarian family that increasingly serves as the background against which debates about the family take place today” (Botting 687).

This seems an interesting comment about her beliefs, because to many reading her most famous “Vindication” essay, marriage does not seem to be regarded as anything near being equal. In fact, “(a) Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), (was) a polemic treatise that deemed marriage ‘legal prostitution’ and denounced the social restrictions that kept her sex “in ignorance and slavish dependence,’ thus prefiguring two central themes of today’s feminist ideology” (Allen 31).

It seems clear that the titles of “first feminist” and “radical” and “free spirit” demand a closer look at the times in which she lived and complained. One of her suggestions was far different from what more recent feminists tend to believe about women’s roles and rights: “She urged the creation of ‘an open road by which [women] can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence,’ but, unlike many of today’s feminists, instructed women that they had to take responsibility for being treated seriously by men (Allen 35).

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One has to resolve the idea of Wollstonecraft as a political and feminist theorist by focusing on what, if anything, her polemics, accomplished. For one thing, women began to take note of their own potential. Wollstonecraft was only a hrelad and not the leader. In a sense, English women hqd come a long way from the antics of a Mrs. Malaprop. One such group, in which Mary Wollstonecraft was a member was balled the “Blue Stockings: “These upper-middle class women scorned female “accomplishments,” card playing, and frivolous behavior, preferring instead a life of moral and intellectual rigor and philanthropic activities… Following their own advice, they created a number of philanthropic institutions whose aim was to help women, often poor widowed women with children, become economically self-sufficient” (Anon 3).

Perhaps, in a way, one could consider Wollstonecraft as the one who opened the door wider than anyone prior to her, to alert Englishwomen to their current plight and what they needed to do to attain some sort of equality as well as respectability in this enlightened age where society was subject to the notion of a “social contract.” Still, there was no outcry from Parliament to make any political or social changes. Perhaps there could be a direct line from the sentiments of Mary Wollstonecraft to the “iron” sentiments of Margaret Thatcher. Mary would surely have been proud of the “no-nonsense” Prime Minister.


Allen, Charlotte: “Mary, quite contrary: a feminist heroine in the age of Johnson. (Vindication : A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft)” The Weekly Standard, May 16, 2005

Botting, Eileen Hunt: “Mary Wollstonecraft’s Enlightened legacy: the ‘modern social imaginary’ of the egalitarian family” American Behavioral Scientist, Jan 2006

Kemmerling, Garth: “Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797” www.philosophypages.com/ph/woll.htm

No author listed: “Mary Wollstonecraft- A Vindication of the Rights of Women” www.bartleby.com/144/

No author listed: “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley” in St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th ed. St. James Press, 1996.

No author listed: “Bluestockings” www.pinn.net/~sunshine/march99/blue.html